There’s nothing quite like an American muscle car. Muscle cars came from a time when there were no safety requirements, no environmental legislation, and no outside restrictions on automotive design. While there are good reasons why we have such limitations today, it was nice to see unadulterated car designs on the street. During the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s, car companies were pushing the limits of engine power and displacement while creating some of the most badass designs ever stamped into sheet metal. And then there was the performance. Big-block V8 motors kept getting powerful, creating a horsepower and displacement war between the big three. It got to the point where some cars were available with almost the same motors that could be found in their race-car counterparts.
However, everything good must come to an end. The early ‘70s saw new government regulations that controlled automotive safety and emissions. American cars could no longer produce huge amounts of power as high-octane (and poisonous) leaded gas was being discontinued and replaced with the weak unleaded fuel of the time. The safety requirements also ruined these cars’ styling due to the required gigantic five-mile-per-hour bumpers. However, these restrictions didn’t stop car companies from attempting to make muscle cars even when they should've just given up. While these cars could be potential hot rods if modified properly, they weren’t fast from the factory. Here are 20 of the worst muscle cars ever made.
The second-generation Chevy Camaro was a true classic muscle car, for the most part. It featured unique styling, particularly, with the early split-bumper model. Unfortunately, this generation had basically lost any sense of performance by the mid-'70s. The 1976 Camaro is the worst of this generation.
Chevy had completely given up on making a performance model, as it dropped the high-performance Z/28 trim prior to 1976. Further killing performance, Chevy also tacked on a fuel-efficient 5.0-liter V8 to the engine lineup.
Starting in 1974, the Camaro also featured hideous guard-rail bumpers that completely destroyed any flow of styling on these otherwise handsome cars. Both earlier and later models looked better and offered the Z/28 trim, which at least showed that Chevy was trying, unlike what they did with the ’76 car.
The fifth generation Ford Mustang was a wonderful modern muscle car. It was the first new muscle car to have faithful retro styling, a trend that everyone else has copied since. However, in 2010, Ford completely redesigned the Mustang. Its updated styling mixed modern cues with retro ones, resulting in an attractive new model. While this redesign was quite good-looking, there was one problem with it—this Mustang was powered by either a 4.0-liter V6 or 4.6-liter V8, just like the outgoing model. While neither motor was terrible, the 2011 model saw a brand new 3.7-liter V6 and 5.0-liter Coyote V8, both of which were light years ahead of the previous motors. The old 4.6-liter V8 produced 315 horsepower, while the new Coyote motor produced nearly 100 horsepower more. Buyers of the 2010 Mustangs must’ve felt catfished after the 2011 model had come out.
The Fox-body Mustang set a new standard for muscle cars in the ‘80s. There simply weren’t any real competitors that could really match its modern styling and powerful 5.0-liter V8. However, that platform couldn’t stay around forever. It was replaced by the ‘New Edge’ Mustang, an unfortunate follow-up to the Fox-body lineup.
While the early examples of the cars still featured the excellent 5.0 V8, it was replaced with the wimpy, gutless 4.6-liter Modular V8 in 1996.
The Modular motor may seem like it’s the better option, but it’s smaller and didn’t have the low-end grunt of the 5.0. Plus, its single-overhead-cam design meant that it didn’t really build power on the top end either. That, combined with the overly soft styling with slightly retro cues, just resulted in an unfortunate Mustang. Thankfully, new-edge Mustangs did see improved styling and better performing motors in later years.
What’s the best platform for a new performance car? Apparently, Chevy decided that the Vega platform was a good start in 1975. The Chevy Vega was a small economy car that had many different problems throughout its production, leaving behind a sour taste. The Monza was originally intended to have a Mazda rotary motor, but that became too expensive and was dropped.
It was eventually offered with a V8 motor and a five-speed manual in its performance Spyder trim. But this V8 was one of the least powerful Chevy small blocks ever built.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the 1980 model lost its V8 option, leaving it only with the dreadful Iron Duke four-cylinder and a weak V6. To its credit, the Monza’s Spyder trim had an aerodynamic shape that could benefit those looking for a cheap muscle-car build.
When the Dodge Charger was rereleased in 2006, it saw some mixed reception. Some people loved the new styling, which was aggressive and new for the mid-2000s, while others screamed blasphemy at the idea of a four-door Charger. While this new look could stand out in the high-performance Daytona and SRT8 models, the base trims, primarily the rental-spec SE, just didn’t stand out from the crowd. And while the SRT and R/T models featured powerful Hemi V8s, the standard SE model had the weak and horribly unreliable 2.7-liter V6. This frightful engine produced a lethargic 190 horsepower that was transmitted through an awful four-speed automatic to propel this two-ton car. This Charger simply isn’t deserving of its name when it’s equipped with such a terrible powertrain. Thankfully, later models dropped this atrocious motor and buttoned up the styling for all models.
The Fox-body Mustang is a hugely popular muscle-car platform. Its main strength is its modifiability; you can do whatever you want with one of these Mustangs, and there isn’t a wrong way to build one. However, it didn’t start that way. The original Fox-body was hideously styled, lacking any of the handsome lines that the later cars eventually gained.
While it was offered with the legendary 5.0 V8, it only produced a meager 140 horsepower by this point.
With so little power, it wouldn’t be surprising if this car was slower than a mustang horse. It could also be equipped with a turbocharged four-cylinder that made nearly as much power, showing how strangled the V8 motors were at the time. While later Fox-bodies have become one of the best muscle cars of all time, it had quite the rocky start.
The Mercury Cougar was basically a luxurious Mustang with a refined interior. First-generation Cougars have become a cheap muscle-car alternative, as it came standard with a V8. However, this prestigious pony car gained a lot of weight when it switched over to its second generation. This version of the car lost much of its sleek styling and traded it in for a strange waterfall grille. However, that wasn’t the end of the Cougar’s punishment, as it was redesigned a couple more times in the ‘70s until it was heavier and offered a choice of three feeble V8s by 1977. It was also no longer a coupe-only model, as it was offered in sedan and wagon versions as well. Despite this, Mercury still had the gall to slap XR7 badges on these models, even though they no longer stood for the performance and luxury that these cars once had.
The original Dodge Challenger was a classic muscle car that could be had in many ways, from the drag legend R/T or the track-ready T/A. Unlike many other muscle cars from the ‘70s, Dodge discontinued the Challenger in 1974 before the model could get ruined. Unfortunately, Dodge would resurrect the nameplate in 1978 as a rebadged Mitsubishi.
Unlike the V8 cars of the past, this Challenger was offered with two four-cylinder motors, the larger of the two producing just over 100 horsepower.
If you wanted to be further punished by this faux muscle car, you could also have it equipped with a three-speed automatic. The styling was bland, much like many other cars from the ‘80s. At the very least, this car sent its power through the correct wheels.
If there was an equivalent to a hot hatchback in the ‘70s, it was the Chevy Nova SS. This was because it was a cheap car that was available with big-block power and performance suspension. It was even offered with a liftgate during certain years, which does technically make it a hatchback. However, in 1974, the SS trim was completely downgraded from a performance option to an appearance package. It was basically just a blacked-out grille and a few SS badges. The suspension wasn’t upgraded, and there wasn’t a standard high-performance motor. Afterwards, the Nova became just a cheap car with no performance variants whatsoever. While the worst Nova was the ‘80s model based on the Toyota Corolla, the 1974 Nova SS was the last one that could be passed as a muscle car, and it failed at that.
If you’re in the market for a classic two-seater muscle car, there’s another option besides the Corvette. Based on the Javelin, AMC built the AMX, a high-performance coupe that featured sleek looks and powerful engine options. It even performed well on the race circuits. However, the Javelin didn’t make it through the mid-'70s, and AMC needed a new platform for the AMX. With limited choices, it picked the Hornet economy car. While this vehicle did offer an optional V8 in addition to its AMX package, the 5.0-liter motor could only muster 120 horsepower. Even for the late ‘70s, that was a very low output for a performance car. This AMX simply didn’t offer the legendary performance of the original car for a myriad of reasons, but it was the best the little company could do.
The Buick Regal T-Type was the basis for the epic Buick Grand National and GNX. With their turbocharged V6 motors, these Buicks could just walk away from almost every V8 offering at the time. While the T-type isn’t as fondly remembered due to its blander styling, it was still a good car. However, before the T-Type, there was the Regal Sport Coupe. This Regal didn’t have any of the later model’s handsome looks. It also lacked the later model’s power as well, only producing similar numbers to the pathetic V8s at the time while being harder to maintain. Even though this car may have been exciting at the time, it’s nothing special now. While the later turbo Buicks have earned the praise they receive, it’s worth remembering the car’s rough beginnings.
In 1994, Chevrolet produced the coolest muscle car to come out of the brand in decades: the Impala SS. Based on the Caprice, it featured blacked-out styling and a powerful Corvette-based 5.7-liter LT1 V8. When the full-size GM platform was discontinued in 1996, Chevy decided to replace the Impala with a front-wheel-drive platform.
The Impala had practically become a redesigned Lumina with very little to offer over many other basic mid-sized cars on the market.
In an attempt spice up this car, Chevy offered an SS model with a supercharged V6. While it was likely the best Chevy could do, it wasn’t enough to compete with the previous Impala SS. Making this all worse, the newer car was front-wheel drive, meaning it had truly lost all of the nameplate’s street cred.
The Dodge Aspen was an absolute disaster for the Chrysler Corporation. The earliest models were horribly rust-prone, resulting in a huge recall of these models and a hefty retooling of Chrysler’s production lines. The rust problems were mostly fixed in the following years, but the damage was done to both the company and the car. The car featured two performance models: the R/T and the one-year-only Super Coupe. The Super Coupe’s 5.9-liter V8 gave the car comparable performance to the Camaro of the time.
While the lesser R/T model had a similar engine, that motor was discontinued by 1980, leaving the only option for this muscle car being a 120-horsepower 5.2-liter V8.
By this point, the car had lost any potential that it could’ve had. Even its hottest version wasn’t able to uphold the Mopar name anymore.
The ‘80s Pontiac Grand Prix isn’t as well remembered as its Monte Carlo and Grand National counterparts, likely due to the model’s obscurity. Pontiac made a performance 2+2 variant with a streamlined nose and an aerodynamic rear window for NASCAR homologation purposes. While the new looks improved high-speed stability at Daytona, the production car’s pathetic 150-horsepower motor meant it wasn’t fast enough to see those benefits. In comparison, the similar Monte Carlo was making 180 horsepower with the same motor. Furthermore, the Grand Prix was also softly sprung, making it less capable in the corners. The biggest problem with this model was its looks. It’s a unique and somewhat handsome model. The slippery styling makes it look far more modern than the standard Grand Prix it was based on. It’s just a shame it couldn’t back up those NASCAR looks.
If there’s a car that absolutely squanders its nameplate, it’s the ‘80s Dodge Charger. Despite Dodge still producing cars on rear-wheel-drive platforms, the company instead decided to build their new Charger on the L-platform. This platform was created in the late ‘70s for cheap front-wheel-drive hatchbacks—not a choice many would pick for a new Charger. While this platform was the base for the Omni GLHS, a fun hot hatch, it was an inappropriate choice for a Charger. It was even offered solely with a few four-cylinder motor options. Even Carroll Shelby tried to improve this Charger by giving it a 175-horsepower turbocharged engine, but even that wasn’t enough to make the L-body Charger worthy of its name. When the Shelby name can’t help a car, then nothing will.
The third-generation Camaro has gained a following by those nostalgic for the ‘80s. Many people remember this Camaro’s IROC-Z trim and its relatively powerful 5.7-liter V8. However, that wasn’t representative of the whole Camaro line up.
For the 1982 model year, the most powerful example of the Camaro had a 5.0-liter motor that couldn’t even muster 200 horsepower.
But that wasn’t enough to make it one of the worst muscle cars ever created. No, that would be the option of the Iron Duke four-cylinder that produced only around 90 horsepower. With all that thunderous power under the hood, this Camaro could sprint to sixty in a mere 20 seconds, meaning this muscle car could be humiliated by a Smart Car. The next time someone complains about a modern muscle car’s four-cylinder powerplant, they should be forced to drive an Iron Duke Camaro.
The C3 was a long-lived generation of the Corvette that saw many different engine options. Early models were available with either torquey big-block motors or peppy small-block V8s. However, the ‘70s took their toll on the once-mighty Corvette. By 1975, the Corvette had lost its big-block motor, leaving a 165-horsepower small-block V8 as its only powerplant. That’s only 15 more than the six-cylinder motor that powered the original Corvette two decades prior. While there was a higher output motor available, it's very rare and still only produced 205 horsepower. Even though this car still had its amazing styling, every other C3 Corvette looked just as good and offered more power. Unless you plan on swapping in a more powerful engine, don’t bother with this Corvette.
The original Ford Mustang is one of the most recognizable cars in the world. When it needed replacing, Ford had to design a great follow-up model. Sadly, the new car was the dreadful Mustang II. While the car likely helped Ford during the 1974 gas crisis, it certainly doesn’t help the Mustang’s image today. With terrible styling and a number of miserable motors available, the Mustang II just couldn’t live up to its predecessor. The fact that it was based on the Pinto platform probably didn’t help matters. The worst offender of the bunch was the pseudo-luxury Ghia model that featured a vinyl roof and opera windows. This look certainly doesn’t scream "Mustang" to anybody today. While a V8 could eventually be optioned, it’s likely that most were equipped with a four-cylinder.
The Oldsmobile 442 was a classic muscle-car design, as it started life as a performance version of an ordinary Cutlass. The "442" name was derived from the car’s four-barrel carburetor, four-speed transmission, and twin exhaust pipes. However, the ‘70s washed away all the performance from the 442, even stripping away what the model’s namesakes had provided. The worst malaise-era 442 was the 1978 model.
The Cutlass and the 442 had migrated to the smaller A-body platform, losing all of its handsome lines during the transition. Making things worse, the 442 was only offered in the dreadful ‘aeroback’ body style.
Further obliterating any resemblance of performance, this 442 could be had with a 3.8-liter V6 and three-speed automatic. While the 5.0-liter four-speed combo may sound fun, it only produced an anemic 145 horsepower.